The Shell, the Pea and We

How many times can we play City Hall's little sucker games?

In fact that's their gotcha. It didn't say on the ballot itself that they had to give the money back if they didn't build the Elm Fork levee. And it maybe said some stuff about "lakes, waterways and open space," but it didn't say how much or when. And, yes, it mentioned a Trinity River Parkway. So they've got a parkway: an eight-lane limited-access toll road expressway. If you don't like it, park.

It's the kind of reasoning you get when you call Seattle to ask why your five-year or 50,000-mile extended drive chain warranty that you paid $500 for, which says on the cover of the brochure "covers any and all failures of the drive chain," doesn't cover your drive chain. And they tell you, "The sales people who made those representations to you no longer work here, and you need to read Chapter 8, Section C, sub-clause 2.5, which says, 'How some ever, the before said not withholding, this policy don't cover nothing, and persons claiming otherwise could get hurt because we got your address.'"

Several weeks ago the city rushed into court with a big emergency petition claiming that the Sensible Priorities lawsuit had caused the Texas attorney general to hold up all city bond sales for everything, river-related or not, bringing City Hall to its knees. The city was joined by what looked at first like a long list of civic-minded "intervenors" who wanted to help the judge understand what a terrible emergency this was.

I looked at the list. It's like 10 different masks on the same basic group of landholders along the river and their lackeys, all of whom were strung together by a lobbyist. The real message of the intervenor list was: "Hey, judge, we've got every googleplexionaire in town wired up to this deal. You make us mad, you think you might have an opponent next election?"

This Tuesday Judge Ann Ashby ruled that the city can do whatever it wants with the Trinity River tax money. She granted the city's request for a summary judgment, basically saying that it's none of the taxpayers' beeswax what City Hall does with their money. In my own humble opinion, the judge was impressed by the googleplexionaire argument.

At this week's hearing, Jim Blackburn, the Houston lawyer representing the Sensible Priorities people, had planned to present reams of evidence to show that the Dallas City Council, both in its official votes and in the promises it made to other government officials, made very specific guarantees about this river plan.

Not vague. Not loose. Very carefully detailed assurances.

In fact, in 1998 the city made specific promises to the Texas attorney general about what each element of the plan would look like, in order to get the A.G.'s permission to tie all of the elements of the plan into one YES or NO proposal. Since then, the city has gone back on almost all of the promises it made to the A.G.

So what does Sensible Priorities want in all this? Do they want to kill the project? Absolutely not. Their lawsuit merely says to the judge that the project has changed so radically that the city needs to give voters a fresh chance to vote on it. A new election.

Their very expensive lawsuit is being funded out of the pockets of private individuals. And all they are trying to do is protect the public pocketbook for the rest of us.

The city, in its answer to the Sensible Priorities lawsuit, tried to take a backup position. Referring to the official brochure that it claimed didn't really count, the city said in its brief, "...even if the brochure had some legal status, any variance...represents a thoughtful, rational and legally appropriate adaptation to changed circumstances..."

Sure. Main changed circumstance: "Quick! They're looking the other way!"

But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's say they really believe their changes are reasonable. The changes still involve huge sums of taxpayer money. So why, if you have respect for the taxpayers, would you not want to go back to them and ask them if this new version you think is so "thoughtful and rational" is still OK with them?

The only reason City Hall resists giving the voters another crack at it is because the powerful landholders pulling the strings just want the public's money for their toll road. And they do not care about trust.

I guess Judge Ashby isn't worried about us taxpayers ever giving her a good opponent.

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